A Brief History of the Celibate Priesthood

by Robin Mejía


Up to the 11th Century, the Catholic Church did not ban marriage among priests.

Surprisingly, there are even several dozen married Roman Catholic priests in the US today. The call is rising for the Vatican to loosen its celibacy rules — especially since the origins of those rules may have had more to do with money than Godliness.


Until the Roman Catholic Church entered its current crisis, many of us had forgotten – if we ever knew it – that priestly celibacy was never required by God, only by his servants at the head of the Church.

However, for many men and women, this fact has defined their most important choice in life. These people are the approximately 20,000 priests who have left their church positions to marry in the past three decades and the women who are now their wives. For years they have advocated that the Church return to its roots, arguing that marriage is a sacred act that supports, rather than denigrates, their service.

“The early Church was family-based,” says John Schuster, a vice president at Celibacy is the Issue (CITI), an organization of married priests. A cursory look at Church history supports his assertion.

For the first dozen or so centuries of the Church’s existence, not only priests, but also bishops and popes married and raised families. As the Church expanded from the Middle East into Europe, many changes occurred. Interaction with Greco-Roman culture impacted Church views on sex and marriage. At the same time, the Church’s power grew and wealthy landowners began donating more property to parishes. Many priests viewed these gifts as personal and would sometimes bequeath them to their heirs, upsetting the Church hierarchy.

By the eleventh century, shifting cultural views, which included the recognition of celibacy as a valuable religious choice, were used to support practical considerations. First, Pope Benedict VIII made it illegal for priest’s children to inherit property. Then, in 1139, the Second Lateran Council made celibacy an official requirement for priesthood.

Many Catholics believe that decision was a purely practical one, designed to better control the priesthood and maintain Church assets. After all, while celibacy has a history as a valid religious choice, it was never a scriptural requirement. In fact, the Eastern churches, which split from the Roman Catholic Church during this period, have maintained a married clergy through today, even in branches that look to the Pope in Rome as their spiritual leader.

C. Russell Ditzel, vice president of CORPUS, the National Association for an Inclusive Priesthood, explains that throughout Church history “there are pragmatic things that happen… and over time they overlay a theology on top to make it look nicer.”

In the centuries following the Second Lateran Council, attempts were made to reintroduce marriage to the Catholic clergy, but none were successful and the Council of Trent officially reaffirmed the requirement for priestly celibacy in the sixteenth century.

So it certainly surprised me to learn that there are a few dozen Vatican-sanctioned married priests serving in Roman Catholic parishes in the US today. John Schuster and Russell Ditzel are not among them; they were forced to leave the clergy in order to marry, along with about 20,000 other priests over the past three decades.

However, even while maintaining a general requirement of celibacy, Pope John Paul II has, since 1980, allowed married Episcopalian clergy to convert and become Catholic priests. About a hundred married Episcopalian ministers have taken up the offer, becoming the only Church-sanctioned married Catholic priests in the U.S. today.

At the same time, some married Catholic priests who were forced from their parish have converted to the Episcopal Church in order to maintain an active ministry.

Others, like Schuster and Ditzel, choose to stay with what they still see as their Church and advocate for change from within. And many Catholics turn to these married priests for support and services, even though they are not officially recognized by the Church. Schuster and Ditzel both hold down full time jobs but minister and perform weddings in their evenings and weekends, as do many other married priests across the country.

“I am a priest. I have the heart of a priest. If someone needs my help, I won’t say no,” says Schuster. He explains that while the church has stripped him of his clerical role, ordination for priesthood is for life.

Both Ditzel and Schuster serve Catholics who either are not eligible for Church services or no longer feel connected to the Church. Schuster, for example, performs weddings for Seattle-area servicemen who wish to marry before shipping out for duty. Often, military schedules prevent Catholic servicemen from receiving the six months of premarital counseling the Church requires.

In talking with both men, it’s easy to understand why many Catholics believe a married ministry would healthy for the Church. Marriage seems to have given them an understanding of the conflict felt by many who consider themselves religious Catholics but are unable to support Church positions on some issues, and perhaps an appreciation of the role women play in life and in the Church.

“Married priests can offer a much more rounded, mature ministry,” says Schuster. Ditzel cautioned against generalizing, but then noted that in CORPUS “by and large, our experience is that marriage has transformed us to an appreciation that the Church will not be whole until our daughters as well as our sons are viable candidates for ordination.”

When will that be? While no one expects Pope John Paul II to change the rules, many are hopeful for change under the next Pope. And, strangely enough, practical considerations seem to be on the side of married priests this time around. While thousands of married priests are currently barred from service, the priesthood is shrinking and seminary enrollment is low. With church membership up in the United States, some priests have to work a circuit, rotating though multiple parishes each week to provide services.

Activists say that allowing married priests to serve would alleviate the current shortage and bring much-needed perspective to Church processes. And the change may well happen if the next Pope listens to the ever-louder calls for democratization of Church governance, for the Vatican’s conservative stances are not mirrored in parish pews. Even before the current sex scandals, a 1992 Gallup poll found that more than sixty percent of Catholics support both the ordination of women and allowing priests to marry.

Ditzel is among those who remain hopeful that change is coming. For whatever his differences he may have with Rome, he has no desire to leave his Church: “It’s my home. It’s my religious tradition.”

© 2002 El Andar Magazine